The Camino de Santiago, or The Way of Saint James in English, is a vast network of pilgrims’ ways that serve the pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, North-West Spain. It is here that there is a shrine to the apostle Saint James the Great lies and where tradition dictates the saint’s remains are buried. The French Way and the Routes of Northern Spain are two of the routes that are listed in the World Heritage List by UNESCO.
Camino de Santiago has been a popular pilgrimage since the Middle Ages and is regarded as one of the most important alongside those pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem. Legend has it that the remains of Saint James were taken from Jerusalem to northern Spain by boat and he was buried in what is now known as Santiago de Compostela. There are dozens of routes pilgrims can take, but they all start at the pilgrim’s home and end at the pilgrimage site. Although dozens of routes exits, there a handful of routes that are consider to be the main ones.
The main route to Santiago follows the trade route of the Romans. This particular route continues on the Atlantic coast of Galicia and ends at Cape Finisterre. Cape Finisterre is Spain’s most western point and back in pre-Christian times, pilgrims believes this to be the westernmost point of what is now Europe, as is evident by the Romans calling it Finisterrae, which translate to literally the end of the world or Land’s End. Camino de Santiago’s earliest records of visits to the Saint James shrine date from the ninth century. According to those records, it became customary that those who returned from the pilgrimage brought a Galician scallop shell back with them as proof they had completed their journey.
With this in mind, the scallop symbol has become synonymous with the Camino de Santiago. The scallop shell is easily found on the shores of Galicia and has, over the years, taken on a number of different meanings. There are two main myths concerning the origin of the sybol and they are both related to the death of Saint James. The first is that the boat carrying Saint James’ body to Spain was hit by a heavy storm and his body was eventually washed ashore undamaged but covered in scallops.
Myth number two states as the ship carrying Saint James’ body was heading into Santiago, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The groom was on horseback and the horse got spooked before plunging itself and the rider into the sea. A miracle occurred and both the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, although covered in sea shells.
The shell also acts as a metaphor because the grooves in the shell meet at a single point, much like the pilgrims eventually arriving at a single destination. Pilgrims often wear the shell throughout their journey as it denotes they are a traveller on the Camino de Santiago.